I am a filmmaker. That’s what I do. I am also a podcaster, a high school TV instructor, a dad, a friend, a son, among many other things I just won’t go into. You get the point. But when someone asks me what I do, I almost always say, “I’m a filmmaker”. The response to that answer always gets a head nod or comments about how interesting and exciting it sounds. But that’s only if the person I’m speaking to is not a filmmaker them self. If they are a filmmaker, the answers range from looks of “my condolences” to instant camaraderie because that person knows all too well what it means to say you are a filmmaker. Most of the time is spent planning, organizing, making phone calls, having meeting after meeting, writing, re-writing, casting, and the gargantuan sum of money that may or may not be coming out of your own pocket.
If you are lucky, all that work will actually get a movie made. Many, many times it does not and you find yourself heading back to the drawing board, scratching your head, trying to figure out what happened to cause the project to fall apart. Was it me? Was it the script? Poor casting choices? What was it? Whatever it is, I always come out of it feeling frustrated and knowing that somehow, no matter what, it really is all my fault.
If I was a better director, people would want to work with me. If the script was better, that would draw more interest from actors and producers and thusly more money. If my last film had been better and more widely acclaimed, I would not be having these problems right now. If I was cooler, smarter, funnier, people would be climbing the fences to get on to my next film, no matter what it was. See? It is all my fault. Like high school all over again.
But sometimes, every now and then, the stars align and you actually do get a film made and that is in and of itself a miracle. It does not say anything to the quality of a film. Honestly, I have a theory that it is just as time consuming and difficult to make a bad film as it is to make a good film. It requires the same amount of people and man hours. It requires the same roles to be filled, the same amount of cameras and editing to make a good film as it does a bad film. Actually, in some ways, it might actually be easier to make a good film because when something is working, it has very little to do with any one person or thing. It is the combination of people, making the right choices at the right time. When that is happening, it is more like magic than anything else I have ever seen.
And that is how I felt about a film I directed called Impasse
. Every step of the way from cradle to grave, from inception to completion, the creation and execution of the filmmaking process at times seemed to go unnaturally smooth. Of course there were problems. Of course there was occasional, late-night existential crisis, brought on by pre-production woes, that made us ask why on Earth anyone would choose to do this to them self. There were still battles and conflicts, arguments and tension between all parties involved, but the film itself always felt like it had something intangible going for it.
It was a pure passion project of writer/producer and my fellow filmmaker, the incomparable Jeanne Veillette Bowerman, who many of you may know as the editor for Script Magazine and one of the organizers of the popular weekly Twitter event known as Scriptchat. We had been looking for something to make together and one day the idea just up and presented itself to Jeanne while she was having a cup of coffee at her local coffee shop. Eventually we ran a successful crowdfund that well overshot what we were initially hoping to raise to make the film. Then in post- production, while we did have a few standard delays and setbacks, the film itself always came through it all unscathed. We were ecstatic. We were elated. We were relieved.
Writer/Producer Jeanne Veillette Bowerman and Director Michael Bekemeyer on the set of Impasse
Then we got to work. Jeanne and I both knew we wanted to cast and crew the film with as many people as possible from the talented group of creatives that we knew from Twitter and Facebook. The main problem with that is that social media is global and most of the people we were interested in for Impasse were nowhere near either of us. Hell, even Jeanne and I were not near each other. She is in upstate New York and I am in Orlando. This desire of ours to work with specific people we admired from all over just meant that our film was going to be even more expensive than any short film than either of us had ever been a part of. Even so, we charged on with one goal in mind. Make a great film with talented people, we might otherwise never have an opportunity to work with. Stay true to the vision and do our best to achieve excellence and the rest would work itself out.
We took to Kickstarter to raise the funds to make the film. At the time we decided on Kickstarter because of it visibility and its all or nothing structure, meaning you set an amount you need for your project and if you raise the money you need in a certain amount of time, you get all the money you raise. If you do not raise the amount of money you are aiming for, you get nothing and your group of backers and supporters never even get charged. This is generally considered to be the most trustworthy route to crowdfunding because if I say I need $10,000 to make my film and I only raise $5,000 what kind of film am I going to make with half the money I said I needed? It is hit or miss and I know many people will not even contribute to a project that is not an "all or nothing" format because of this very reason.
These days there are many options for crowdfunding. IndieGoGo, Kickstarter, and an even newer, platform called Seed & Spark that is a niche crowdfunding site specifically for filmmakers. Many of us are starting to make the switch to Seed & Spark because it has a very "for us, by us" feel and is designed to help the filmmaker successfully fund your film as well as build an audience for it once it is complete. The current film I am producing, called Short People Problems, will be crowdfunding through Seed & Spark and we are excited to learn from the process as we move forward.
Anyway, back to Impasse
. We successfully crowdfunded our film and got in shot and edited and were exceedingly proud of our work. We were excited to finally be able to show it to our friends, family, and backers. As the director, I was most pleased with the fact that it was one of those rare films where the film in our head was actually the film we got to make. If you are a filmmaker you know that is not always easy and when things go bad there is not always any one place to point the blame. Sometimes films just do not come together as you hoped. But when they do, it is an incredibly satisfying experience. I felt very blessed to get to work with the cast, crew, and creative collaborators that I got to work with because I know they all played an irreplaceable role in giving me, the director that priceless gift of a great filmmaking experience. It was and still remains my very favorite experience directing a film, ever. I love it. I am very proud of it.
But now what? I’m looking at almost three years since the production of that film and I have yet to direct anything else. It is to the point where it actually makes me sick to think that I have not made anything in that time. I love filmmaking and telling stories. On set is my absolute favorite place to be, so why have I not done it since then? Recently, it has even gotten to the point that I am starting to resent my last film. Impasse. The one I used to be so in love with. I almost hate talking about it for a multitude of reasons.
Writer/Producer Jeanne Veillette Bowerman and Lead Actress Jennifer Fontaine
One of those reasons being how could I possibly call myself a filmmaker if I have not made a film? Talking about a film I made three years ago does not say anything about me, except that at some point in my life, I made a film. Past tense. So have a lot of people. I feel like that guy, who keeps visiting their old high school to re- live the glory days. I feel like that guy who is clinging to the one good thing he once had, so he does not feel like a fake.
Another reason is when I am on set, shooting a film I am learning things. When I am sitting in front of the Mac editing, I am learning things that only come from the perspective gained by actually going through the process of making a film. These are things that I would have never learned if I had not made that film and they are things that I do not really get to put into action until I can start using them from the start of the next project. You become a better filmmaker by making a film. It can be a terrible or great. It does not matter. The thing is that for me it is incredibly frustrating to not be able to put new things and ideas into practice. I want to grow.
I assure you, it has not been for a lack of trying. I have been through at least three different iterations of what could have been my next film. First, there was a feature film. We had the script. It was a tough one to cast and put together, strictly because of heavy dramatic material. We actually had people read the script, love it and say that they just were not able to take the part because they did not yet feel ready to take on the material.
At first, I saw this as a good sign that we were trying to do things and tell a story that made people nervous. I feel like when people are nervous about what they are setting out to do, it brings them to the work with a laser focus and an intensity that I want in a collaborator. It made sense. I was nervous too. It is how I write and approach things myself. I want to be nervous. If I am not, I am afraid I will shift into been there, done that auto pilot and not take it as seriously as I should. But after we heard that same concern multiple times from multiple people we realized that it just might not be the right time for that project.
Then there were a couple of short films. One I was very excited about. I even ran a crowdfund for it. A crowdfund that failed to reach its goal. Which left me with no money to make the film I wanted to make. I had just finished a film where I felt I had raised the bar on myself. We actually paid all of the cast and most of the crew. We shot on the RED and had hired an editor, composer, colorist, even a sound designer. I had never made a film where I had paid or worked with any of those kinds of people. I had either done it myself or begged for favors from friends and people I knew. In many ways, I finally felt like a real, legitimate director and it was very satisfying to know that people were being paid for their time and artistry. Going forward, to do a film in any other way felt like to going backwards and I just did not want to do that. Let me tell you. I was heartbroken and disappointed. I felt beaten down and was wondering how I was ever going to get a film made if I could not even pull off a simple crowdfund.
Bekemeyer discussing a scene with actors Jose Miguel Vasquez and Andrea Jordan
For me, this is the hardest part of filmmaking. I suck at getting jobs. I am terrible at self-promotion and getting my name out there. I am realizing that no matter how clever and unique I think I am, I am that typical creative person who is just not very good at the business side of things. All too often I find myself resenting the process where you have to convince people to believe in your project as much as you do, even with nothing at all to show for it. I guess it is part of suffering for your art. If you do not have to work hard for the thing, you do not appreciate the thing to its fullest extent. If you have not paid your dues, you have not earned the right to participate. I am very good at locking myself in a dark room and emerging with yet another story that I feel needs to be told. I am very good on set. We keep it lite and fun, even when the material is serious and dramatic and from what I can tell, people enjoy working with me. I am good in the grind of post-production, when you have to keep sight, not of what the film is in its current state, but imagine what it can and will be when you are finished.
I love that stuff. For me it really is an awful lot like sculpting. Take all those separate elements and craft the finished thing, by hand, into its final form. In the end there is something new in the world that would not exists were it not for your willing it into existence with blood, sweat, and tears. Even with the same script another director would not have made the same film. Same story, different film. That is why I love the process. That is why I love the collaboration between not just anyone but the specific people you choose to work with on any given project. You are all making something that no one else is going to make. No matter how good, bad, or ugly. It is completely unique because of you, however you fit into the team of people that is setting out to tell the story.
I just want to do that stuff. I just want to get together with smart, creative people and make a movie. Unfortunately, that is just not how it works and one does not come with the other. To commit to one, is to commit just as much to the other. Frustrating, I know. But it has to be done. You have to fight your way through the gauntlet of issues to get yourself to the good stuff. I think of it as a test to your commitment and resolve. You have to kiss a lot of frogs and whatnot. You want cake and you want to eat it? Of course not. That would be way too easy, right?
So now we have the daily mantra. When I stand in the mirror and stare at my forty-one year old face, I often find myself thinking...So what? Now what? Are you going to let those obstacles that get in your way stop you from doing the thing you love? Are you going to let those insignificant problems and detours be smarter than you are? Are you going to let someone else’s indecisiveness and lack of vision control your outcome?
Then there are the quiet pep talks when I am in the privacy of my car, where no one can hear me talking to myself. Nobody gives a shit about your film the way you do. No one can tell your story the way you can. You have to get out there and wag the dog and act like this film is going to save the fucking universe. You cannot listen to the voice in your head that is telling you no. You cannot give power to the weakness of doubt inside you. It will eat you alive from the inside out. You have to dig deep. Grab a camera, get out there and get it done. Now!
Over the years, I've found that the real trick is learning how to take your own advice.
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As always, Michael is available for questions and remarks in the Comments section below...